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The vast savannah in Guyana’s southern Rupununi region has varying moods. From April through August, the rainy season, it turns into a shimmering water world. By February, parts will be tinder-dry, sometimes fueling wildfires that rage across the grassland.

During seasonal flooding, waters from Amazonian rivers mix with those of a watershed that drains into the Atlantic. Fish from both river systems swim upstream to spawn in lakes and ponds, giving the region remarkable aquatic biodiversity.

This rich freshwater fishery has long been a key source of food for the people of the Rupununi — Wapishana, Makushi and Wai-wai Amerindians, as well as descendants of British colonists and the indentured servants and slaves they brought to work in the colony.

Over the years, however, both the number of fish and the variety have decreased, as people who once fished just to feed their families began to need cash for purchases. Instead of fishing just with hook and line or bow and arrow, they began using nets, so they could catch enough fish to sell.

   A fisherman sets a net on the Rupununi River in southern Guyana. CIFOR/Barbara Fraser

“The population is growing in North Rupununi, more fish are being consumed and the fish population is declining,” says Kevin Edwards, community fisheries coordinator for the North Rupununi District Development Board (NRDDB), which consists of toshaos, or leaders, of 20 communities.

Leaders of 14 of those communities in the north Rupununi sub-district have discussed proposals for managing fisheries to ensure a supply that will meet villagers’ food needs now and in the future, Edwards says. But the organization lacked the funds to refine and implement a management plan.

   Participants in the workshop on sustainable hunting, held in Aishalton, Guyana, on 8-10 September 2019, meet to discuss common concerns. CIFOR/Barbara Fraser

Now that work is under way with support from the Guyana branch of the Sustainable Wildlife Management (SWM) Programme, which is working to improve the conservation and sustainable use of wildlife in forest, savannah and wetland environments in 13 countries.

“This gives community members a chance to save their fish resources,” Edwards says.

Fishing for data

As part of the process of adapting the fisheries plan, communities will collect information about fishing and fish consumption from among the approximately 7,000 people who live in the North Rupununi sub-district.

“To better manage fish resources, we need to understand what is happening,” Edwards says.

Using a mobile phone app, he works with 20 to 25 fishers in each community to gather information about how, when and where they fish, and the species they catch, as well as how much and what kinds of fish villagers buy and eat.

Some questionnaires are aimed at villagers in general, while others target grocery stores or focus on sport fishing, which is a tourist pastime. Other surveys gather information about changes in the climate and aquatic habitats, as well as the timing of fish spawning runs.

That information will be combined with estimates of fish stocks to develop a management plan that will specify dates for fishing seasons and catch limits for different categories of fishing. The plan will also regulate net size, to avoid catching immature fish.

Each fisher will have a permit that specifies allowable fishing techniques, as well as different quotas for those who fish for subsistence, or just to feed their families, and those who sell fish locally or commercially, Edwards says.

   A fisherman rows his canoe on the Rupununi River in southern Guyana. CIFOR/Barbara Fraser

That may be more difficult to regulate, because some people fish for subsistence, but sell surplus to earn cash to buy necessities.

“There will always be (discussion) about what is subsistence and what is not, and what is commercial and what is not,” says Ivor Marslow, executive director of the NRDDB. Nevertheless, he adds, “I definitely think you have to put numbers to things,”

Once the management plan is in place, Edwards and other fisheries managers will visit the villages to ensure that residents understand the regulations and help them comply.

“This isn’t to scare fishermen, but to work with fishermen and try to put a sustainable (system) in place,” he says.

Initially, village councils will enforce the guidelines, under powers granted to them by Guyana’s Amerindian Act, but Edwards hopes the regulations will eventually serve as the basis for national freshwater fisheries legislation, which Guyana currently lacks.

   Participants in the workshop on sustainable hunting, held in Aishalton, Guyana, on 8-10 September 2019, meet in small groups to discuss common concerns. CIFOR/Barbara Fraser

Teaching through song

Most villages that are part of the NRDDB are located along riverbanks. Several are near the confluence of the Rupununi and Essequibo Rivers, traditionally a rich fishing ground.

But when Gloria Duarte was fishing in that area two years ago, she was surprised at how much the fishing had changed.

“People say they don’t catch fish like before,” says Duarte, 49, a former toshao of the village of Rupertee who fishes with her husband.

In the village of Apoteri, where the rivers meet, “people say you can’t just throw the hook and catch a fish, like before,” she says.

She blames a combination of factors. The use of nets instead of lines has contributed, and commercial fishers come from the coast or from Lethem, the nearest city, to fish there, she says. Added to that is the noise from boat motors, which disturbs the tranquility of the rivers.

Saddened by the changes, Duarte composed a song about them in her native Makushi language. It is part of her effort to ensure that young people learn the traditions of their parents and grandparents.

“Mothers try to keep the culture alive by using traditional food,” she says.

But she worries that people are eating less fish and more imported chicken. They are also consuming more processed food, which contributes to an increase in health problems such as diabetes and hypertension.

   Students play a game in which they weave a web of life during the launch of an environmental education curriculum at the elementary school in the village of Shulinab, in Guyana’s Rupununi region. CIFOR/Barbara Fraser
   Students at Sand Creek Secondary School identify local wildlife on posters during the launch of the new environmental education curriculum. CIFOR/Barbara Fraser

As she sings about how fishing was in earlier times, and how it is today, children dance with movements that mimic the motions of fishing, in costumes that evoke the arapaima, a giant, air-breathing fish that has become scarce in the region.

“I love to go fishing,” Duarte says. “I love to eat fish fresh from the river, when you roast it and eat it fresh, with cassava bread, right on the river bank.”

She worries that traditional knowledge is being lost, and hopes that by performing songs and dances, children and teenagers will learn about their heritage and teach others.

“If you don’t educate young people about the birds and the animals,” she says, “how will they know?”

The Sustainable Wildlife Programme is funded by the European Union and implemented by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD) and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).

For more information on this topic, please contact Nathalie van Vliet at
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